Pressure rising

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 23, 2006

“I and other legislators will keep intense pressure on them to try to keep them from being sued by the MCLU,” Nutting said, referring to the department.

Specific reforms promised
Magnusson appears eager to be cooperative with Supermax critics. He was when interviewed in October, and he appeared especially eager when he took the seat, immediately after Carothers, before the Criminal Justice Committee.

He told the legislators that, at a prison meeting on the preceding day, he had set up committees to report in 30 days on how to reform the Supermax by:

- Developing “progressive” rewards to obtain modifications of prisoner behavior, to move away from the present punitive approach. Magnusson mentioned the possible use of closed-circuit-television therapy programs in cells to help inmates become cooperative. If they complete a course, they could be allowed, for example, to watch some sports programs.

- Training the staff in verbal ways to de-escalate confrontations with prisoners in an effort to reduce use of the restraint chair.

- Avoiding forced extractions from cells. He said this has been accomplished in Colorado through talk with prisoners and the threat of an irritant gas, OC, which he says is stronger than the pepper spray now used in the Supermax.

In an interview, Magnusson says he also is having a committee “look at the current culture in the Supermax” — to improve the working environment for the staff, their teamwork, and their communication with inmates.

A big step that could be taken, he says, sounds a lot like prisoner Deane Brown’s idea: open up a 16-cell Supermax “pod” now vacant and turn it into a treatment unit for some mentally ill prisoners. In it, they would not have to be kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. But “we’re very tight on money,” Magnusson notes.

He says he has been working toward reforms for several months. His decisions partially implement recommendations of a National Institute of Corrections consultant who came to Maine in December from the Colorado prison system to evaluate the SMU, at the commissioner’s invitation. National correctional officials hold up Colorado’s Supermax as a model in which violence in dealing with prisoners has been greatly reduced. Magnusson also sent six of his prison staff to the Colorado State Penitentiary to study its practices. He will rely on them — they include two deputy wardens — to work up details of how to change the Supermax. He says the staff is enthusiastic about making changes.

Guard charged with assault
One subtle change may have already occurred in the difficult prisoner-guard psychology of the Supermax. Guards could become more careful in their treatment of inmates because, while prosecutions of prisoners for assaults on guards have been almost routine, for the first time in at least 25 years a guard is being prosecuted for an alleged assault on a prisoner.

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